Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

Jane Yolen’s 10 Words Every Picture Book Author Must Know

Last week at the SCBWI Winter Conference, the award-winning author Jane Yolen talked about ten words that every picture book author should know: Lyricism, compression, child centeredness, focus, hook, words, ‘illustratability’, motion, emotion and resolution.

I found this list particularly inspiring, and thought I would try my hand at riffing on each word, and why it’s so important to children’s book authors, over the next few blog posts.

Herewith, my humble attempt at translating the first word in Jane’s list:


Jane defined this as lyric sensibility, resonance and singability.  I’d add rhythm, musicality, emotion and style.

It’s the difference between “Grandfather Twilight lived among the trees” (from Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger) and “Once upon a time there was an old man named Grandfather Twilight who lived in the forest.”

It’s “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” (Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak) versus “One night a boy named Max dressed up in a wolf suit, behaved badly and got into trouble.”

Picture books are written and designed to be read aloud with a child, so the aim of lyricism is readability. We want the text to engage the ear as much as the imagination.

Let’s look at a few other examples:

“Good night to the old lady whispering hush,” (Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown) is so much better than “Good night to the nanny in the rocking chair,” or even, “Good night, old lady who tells me to hush.” It’s more sing-song in rhythm (of course this is a rhyming book, so it has to be) and “whispering” evokes the quiet of the room and the character of the old lady as well as of the little bunny telling the story.

“Oh, how Willie wished he could whistle!” (Whistle for Willie, by Ezra Jack Keats) is much more lyrical than “Once there was a little boy named Willie who wished he could whistle.” It’s direct, personal, emotional (the “Oh!” suggests extra passion) and the alliteration makes it totally musical.

Do you see how the lyrical sentences have style, rhythm, and/or evoke a feeling, rather than simply telling the story? The lyric quality makes them that much more fun to read, as well as to listen to.

Two last important points:

Lyricism doesn’t require wordiness (remember, the next word in Jane’s list is “compression!”), but it does require imagination and style.

Lyricism doesn’t need to be at the expense of humor. Just because something is poetic or musical doesn’t mean it can’t also be scathingly funny (just ask Shel Silverstein.)


7 Responses to “Jane Yolen’s 10 Words Every Picture Book Author Must Know”
  1. Patricia says:

    Oh, goodie! I was hoping you’d start writing your thoughts about Jane Yolen’s 10 Words. Lyricism takes on a life of its own, and I like your discussion. For some it comes more naturally, for others, not so easily. Grandfather Twilight is lyrical throughout and such a good example. Hadn’t thought about the opening to Willie — but it is lyrical in a different way. I think I will find your words about lyricism helpful at the editing stage, when I review my story for now. That may be a way to begin. Thank you!

  2. Patricia says:

    Oh, goodie! I was hoping you would soon begin a discussion on Jane Yolen’s 10 Words to Know. For some it comes naturally, for other not so easily. I appreciated your example of Grandfather Twilight as the entire book is so lyrical. And, I hadn’t thought about the opening sentence of Willie as being lyrical — but it is in a nice way. Now that I have stome stories written I think I will review them in the editing stage where I can focus on how I can review and rewrite my sentences to make them more lyrical, or find a rhythm in the flow of dialogue and narrative. Perhaps one day, it will just flow. Thanks Emma for a great discussion.

  3. Beth says:

    Intriguing thoughts. Much of my background in the arts is in music, and so the concept of lyricism readily speaks to me. I realize that I can use my experience in writing hymn lyrics to inform my writing of picture books. Lyrics must not only convey a message, they must convey the emotion and thought behind that message, and do it in a way that is singable. Sometimes a line of a lyric must be reworked and reworked because it just doesn’t sing. There is a definite correlation there to the process of honing the wording of a picture book text.

    Your examples made me think of the difference between writing that is poetical (although not necessarily poetry) and writing that is prosaic. This morning, I was reviewing a couple of lullaby-books on my blog. One, “Lullaby-Berceuse”, is so lyrical that I found myself nearly starting to sing it to my own tune as I read. This isn’t surprising, since the author, Connie Kaldor, is a singer/songwriter. The other, “Papa’s Song”, by Kate and Jim McMullan also had a beautiful, quiet lyricism. While one would expect a lullaby book to be lyrical, as I read and re-read this blog post and pondered it, I realized that “I Stink!” is lyrical in its own way. Just as not all music is gentle ballads, not all picture books will show their lyricism in the same way. There is dissonance and crashing cymbals and loud beats on drums in the music of “I Stink!” but there is still music. Other picture books that I was reading this afternoon tried to be lyrical, but got bogged down in too much narrative, with occasional stridently dissonant changes in language that did not fit with the rest of the text, like hitting a jarringly wrong note while playing the piano.

    To me, texts that show this “lyrical sensibility” are texts that are alive, rather than the dull plodding of life-less prosaic narrative. There is a place for prosaic narrative, but it isn’t in picture books. Now I need to go back and read my manuscript again, and ask myself “Does it sing?” Does it have life?

    As always, Emma, thank you for providing such meaty food for thought. (And, as always, I’ve gone on and on in my response!)

  4. Joanna says:

    Thank you, Emma, for so concretely expanding on lyricism. Looking at what is and isn’t lyricism really brings home the message and I love your sentence “Lyricism doesn’t require “wordiness, but it does require imagination and style.” As Pat and Beth have hinted at, I guess lyricism is more innate for some and has to be really worked at by others. This really does remind us to be constantly reading aloud our picture book drafts, to be listening for this. Many of the examples you gave were first lines, which makes me want to return to my opening sentence to check my story has that lyrical hook from the beginning (and of course then check the entire draft for these qualities).

  5. Diane says:

    Ha, Yes Joanna, I too am going back over what I have written as this will be an area I will have to really work on. This will not come easily for me I fear. Thankyou so much Emma for delving into these more, and as a visual person your examples are what a crave, so thankyou, thankyou. I mentioned in the Children’s Hub “Dreamboat” website, how I picked up straightaway the lovely whimsical and lyrical text. He is a songwriter so it came natural to him, but I must say because of the lyrical text one is compelled to read it again and again.

  6. What a wonderful post! Your examples clarified the first word in Jane’s list. I hope you will do similar posts on the other other words in her list. This is very helpful. Thanks!

  7. Oops! I didn’t realize this was a post from 2011!!! I need to pay attention to details 🙂

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